An American Athletic Conference Case Study: How Competitive Would USF Have Been?

Phil Sears-US PRESSWIRE

With USF softball and baseball finished, the Bulls' run in the Big East is over, and their time in the American Athletic Conference is set to begin. If this league already existed, how would USF have fared in the last few years?

Starting with the next season's fall sports, all USF teams will be competing in the American Athletic Conference. Unsurprisingly, no one is really pleased with this. The only argument I've heard in support of the new conference at all is that the Bulls will benefit from weaker competition, and thus will start winning more games and conference titles across the board. Passing over any and all underachieving tendencies, here's how the stats play out on that theory. (Note that we've already removed Louisville and Rutgers from this league.)

Football

Let's start with football. Most of the new American teams were selected with football in mind, so logic dictates that the dropoff between the new conference and the Big East shouldn't be that great. Here's how the American would have played out in 2012 according to Sagarin rankings:

1. Cincinnati: 36
2. C. Florida: 45
3. Tulsa: 47
4. SMU: 57
5. Navy: 82
6. ECU: 84
7. USF: 86
8. UConn: 89
9. Temple: 100
10. Houston: 108
11. Memphis: 123
12. Tulane: 155

There are obvious inconsistencies here--first off, the two teams directly under USF beat them head-to-head--but it provides a pretty clear representation of just how steep that dropoff really is. Last year's Bulls team was the worst they've fielded in years and earned them a spot in last place in the Big East. Here they land seventh out of 12 teams, and the cellar is far below them in terms of talent. It's also worth mentioning that there isn't even a ballpark Top 25 team among the bunch here.

But this example, of course, is operating under the assumption that USF will play every season like the last year of the Skip Holtz era. To get a more accurate depiction of each program's strength, let's look at how the American would play out using the average of the Sagarin rankings from the last three seasons.

1. Tulsa: 39 (47, 35, 35)
2. Cincinnati: 44.3 (36, 30, 67)
3. C. Florida: 54.7 (45, 77, 42)
4. USF: 63 (86, 59, 44)
5. SMU: 63.7 (57, 51, 83)
6. Houston: 68.3 (108, 15, 82)
7. Navy: 70.3 (82, 74, 55)
8. Temple: 70.7 (100, 46, 66)
9. UConn: 73.6 (89, 76, 56)
10. East Carolina: 87.3 (84, 93, 85)
11. Tulane: 153.6 (155, 171, 135)
12. Memphis: 159.3 (123, 182, 173)

It's been a rough past two seasons, but the Bulls still managed to land in fourth place. Meanwhile, Tulsa looks like the only new addition to the conference worth their salt in football. Who in the world decided bringing in Tulane was a good idea?

These rankings, of course, don't take teams' tendencies to play above or below their talent levels into full consideration. The Bulls, of course, have been playing worse than the stats would indicate, while teams like UConn have somehow been squeezing marginally acceptable products out of very little. Still, it's a rough measure of where USF can expect to fall in the new conference.

Men's Basketball

Let's check out how men's basketball would have played out last year, with Ken Pomeroy's (KenPom) rankings:

1. Memphis: 40
2. Cincinnati: 41
3. UConn: 52
4. Temple: 62
5. East Carolina: 119
6. C. Florida: 135
7. USF: 144
8. Tulane: 146
9. Houston 173
10. SMU: 180
11. Tulsa 183

This could be called encouraging if your idea of encouraging is weaker competition. The Bulls were undermanned and frankly awful for the majority of last season, but in the American they would've floated around the middle of the pack. Remember, USF split a pair of games with the 3rd and 6th-place teams here. Here are the same Pomeroy rankings fleshed out over the last three seasons:

1. Cincinnati: 30 (41, 26, 23)
2. UConn: 33 (52, 37, 10)
3. Memphis: 45 (40, 8, 87)
4. Temple: 48.7 (62, 46, 38)
5. USF: 106.3 (144, 48, 127)
6. C. Florida: 114.7 (135, 107, 102)
7. Tulsa: 121.7 (183, 92, 90)
8. East Carolina: 131.7 (119, 130, 146)
9. Tulane: 173.7 (146, 190, 185)
10. SMU: 177.3 (180, 198, 154)
11. Houston: 190 (173, 188, 209)

This is one sport where I think the new conference could benefit USF. There's a well-defined top four here, but after that it's anyone's game. If the Bulls can establish themselves as the best team from the rest of the pack, it would be a nice step forward for the program.

There should be a noticeable uptick in performance for the Bulls in the two big-money* sports, but I can only really see it paying dividends in basketball. With the new bowl system, USF would have to assert itself at the top of the American in football to really make any sort of dent. That's doable, but not with how they've been playing over the last few seasons. Basketball, meanwhile, can establish themselves as a year-in year-out bubble candidate, as opposed to bouncing back and forth between the middle of the pack and cellar like they've done for the last few years.

* - Although in this conference, "big money" is just a figure of speech.

For your viewing pleasure, here are the same figures for other USF teams, all using RPI because there isn't a better measuring stick available:

Women's Basketball

1. UConn: 4
2. USF: 54
3. SMU: 68
4. East Carolina: 81
5. Houston: 84
6. Tulane: 87
7. Tulsa: 94
8. C. Florida: 120
9. Temple: 122
10. Memphis: 129
11. Cincinnati: 180

The 2012 numbers look pretty encouraging, but...

1. UConn: 2 (4, 1, 1)
2. Temple: 61.7 (122, 35, 28)
3. Tulane: 70 (87, 74, 49)
4. Houston: 72 (84, 31, 101)
5. East Carolina: 92.3 (81, 113, 83)
6. USF: 102 (54, 134, 116)
7. SMU: 108 (68, 178, 78)
8. C. Florida: 113 (120, 61, 158)
9. Memphis: 120 (129, 106, 125)
10. Cincinnati: 158 (180, 163, 131)
11. Tulsa: 172 (94, 276, 146)

...the three-year averages bring the Bulls down to earth. Think UConn will ever lose a game in this conference?

Baseball

1. Houston: 68
2. USF: 74
3. UConn: 78
4. East Carolina: 84
5. Memphis: 92
6. Tulane: 127
7. C. Florida: 140
8. Cincinnati: 233
9. Temple: 252

1. East Carolina: 49 (84, 32, 31)
2. C. Florida: 61.7 (140, 24, 21)
3. UConn: 65.7 (78, 80, 39)
4. USF: 80.3 (74, 71, 96)
5. Tulane: 85.7 (127, 64, 66)
6. Memphis: 90.3 (92, 73, 106)
7. Houston: 93 (68, 153, 58)
8. Cincinnati: 199.7 (233, 219, 147)
9. Temple: 256 (252, 250, 266)

This just speaks to how average Lelo Prado's teams have been of late. Fourth place in this league should be unacceptable. (Fourth place in the league the Bulls just finished playing in was borderline unacceptable. Also, SMU and Tulsa do not have baseball teams.)

Softball

1. Tulsa: 28
2. Houston: 32
3. USF: 37
4. C. Florida: 79
5. UConn: 120
6. East Carolina: 141
7. Temple: 155
8. Memphis: 175

1. Tulsa: 28.7 (28, 31, 27)
2. Houston: 32.7 (32, 46, 20)
3. USF: 36 (37, 15, 56)
4. C. Florida: 71.3 (79, 45, 90)
5. East Carolina: 86.7 (141, 86, 33)
6. UConn: 113.3 (120, 94, 126)
7. Memphis: 122.3 (175, 148, 44)
8. Temple: 141.3 (155, 134, 135)

Surprising to see the Bulls in third, but the 2012 version would have won the league. USF will probably have to do just that in the future if they want to sniff an NCAA bid. (SMU, Cincinnati, and Tulane don't have softball programs.)

Men's Soccer

1. UConn: 8
2. Tulsa: 14
3. USF: 32
4. SMU: 34
5. Memphis: 64
6. UCF: 80
7. Cincinnati: 87
8. Temple: 97

Still a pretty robust soccer league, both in the 2012 numbers and in the three-year averages. (Houston, Tulane, and East Carolina don't have men's soccer teams.)

1. UConn: 10.3 (8, 3, 20)
2. SMU: 16.7 (34, 10, 6)
3. USF: 28 (32, 9, 43)
4. Tulsa: 48.7 (14, 111, 21)
4. UCF: 48.7 (80, 33, 33)
6. Memphis: 87.7 (64, 46, 153)
7. Cincinnati: 96.7 (87, 155, 48)
8. Temple: 131.3 (97, 158, 139)

Women's Soccer

1. C. Florida: 21
2. USF: 51
3. UConn: 60
4. SMU: 64
5. Tulsa: 73
6. Memphis: 87
7. East Carolina: 97
8. Houston: 126
9. Temple: 213
10. Cincinnati: 227

And the three-year averages:

1. C. Florida: 21 (20, 20, 23)
2. Memphis: 40.3 (87, 8, 26)
3. UConn: 59.3 (60, 85, 38)
4. SMU: 64 (63, 76, 53)
5. USF: 85.3 (51, 172, 33)
6. East Carolina: 91.7 (97, 79, 99)
7. Tulsa: 99.3 (73, 70, 155)
8. Houston: 109.7 (126, 143, 60)
9. Cincinnati: 169.7 (227, 190, 92)
10. Temple: 249.3 (213, 256, 279)

Fifth place looks low, but the Bulls' numbers are a bit skewed by an awful 2011 season. (Tulane is the only all-sports American member without women's soccer.)

Using the three-year averages, that's fourth in football, fifth in men's basketball, sixth in women's basketball, fourth in baseball, third in softball, third in men's soccer and fifth in women's soccer. Nothing at all spectacular there.

What can we take from that? Football is the only sport that really matters in terms of realignment, so conference titles elsewhere will do little good when it comes to improving USF's spot on the food chain. But that's ultimately irrelevant, because the Bulls wouldn't be winning them at their current rate of performance anyway. Even with the weaker competition, USF is going to have to step it up across the board.

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